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Edvard HELSTED (1816-1900), H.S. PAULLI (1810-1891), H.C. LUMBYE (1810-1874) and Louise ALENIUS (b. 1978)
Napoli - ballet in three Acts (1842, rev. 2009) [105:00]
Choreography by Sorella Englund and Nikolaj Hübbe, after August Bournonville
Gennaro - Alban Lendorf
Teresina - Alexandra Lo Sardo
Golfo - Benjamin Buza
Veronica - Lis Jeppesen
Giovanina - Alba Nadal
Flora - Mette Bødtcher
Peppo - Jean-Lucien Massot
Giacomo - Fernando Mora
Pascarillo - Poul Erik Hesselkilde
Pilgrim - Josephine Berggreen
Royal Danish Ballet Corps de ballet, Royal Danish Ballet School
Det Kongelige Kapel/Graham Bond
rec. Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen, 18 March 2014
Directed for the screen by Uffe Borgwardt and Peter Borgwardt
DVD-9 double-layer disc
16:9 anamorphic
Audio formats: LPCM 2.0, dts Digital Surround
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1195D [105:00]

"August Bournonville's Napoli is one of the cornerstones of the Royal Danish Ballet. As ballet children, we all stood on the bridge waving in the third Act, subsequently advancing through the hierarchy; first you come down off the bridge to become a child fisherman or suchlike; then, once you have grown out of that costume, you become part of the crowd; then, if you're really lucky, you're allowed to dance the pas de six or tarantella; and perhaps one day you may even end up in the principal role of Teresina or Gennaro. You cannot be a dancer at the Royal Danish Theatre without Napoli eventually colouring your approach to dancing, and from the very outset to the very end of their careers, every Royal dancer will have some sort of relationship with the ballet."
Nikolaj Hübbe, Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet, writing in the DVD booklet notes.

For at least the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century ballet was regarded as an essentially ephemeral entertainment rather than a serious art form. As a result, very many scores - together with their choreographers' dance notations - were preserved only carelessly or even lost altogether. We have, for example, little surviving music from Cesare Pugni (1802-1870), the most prolific ballet composer of all time who wrote the music for almost a hundred full-length productions for audiences in Milan, London, Paris and St Petersburg and was responsible for re-arranging other people's scores for many more. The occasional modern revivals of Pugni's ballets - most notably of La Esmeralda (1844) and The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862) - have only been possible thanks to the heroic research, reconstructive efforts and creative imagination of the French choreographer Pierre Lacotte.

We are, however, immensely fortunately that a significant body of ballet from that period has survived in its authentic original form in Denmark. In the late 1820s the Danish dancer and choreographer August Bournonville (1805-1879), impressed by the latest styles and techniques of dance that he had encountered in Paris, recreated them in Copenhagen where they have been meticulously preserved ever since by the Royal Danish Ballet, thereby offering a unique window into dance history.

Bournonville's choreographic style is a comparatively unassuming one, so that even well-disposed critics often find themselves explaining it in terms of what it doesn't do rather than what it does. Thus, it has been characterised as "violently opposed to the exploitation of technique as a means of sensation, and ... [to] anything that hinted at affectation or exaggeration, or offended against good taste" (Cyril W. Beaumont "Supplement to Complete book of ballets" [London, 1942], p. 22). A more recent dance historian has similarly described it as "contained [and] less inclined to spectacular tricks and over-extended movements. It prized decorum and propriety, clean lines and unfettered gestures... [Bournonville] despised affect, coquetry, tics, and distortions. 'Le plus,' he noted sharply, 'c'est le mauvais goût' - too much is bad taste" (Jennifer Homans "Apollo's angels: a history of ballet" [London, 2010], p. 189).

As a result of its innate restraint and modesty, Bournonville's choreography can sometimes prove a little underwhelming to those encountering it for the first time. The British ballet critic Richard Buckle, for instance, saw only its perceived limitations and deficiencies when he first visited Copenhagen in 1951, picking out "a lack of lyrical line, a small, brittle neatness, the ability to perform steps of elevation and batterie much better than turning movements, an absence of the épaulement which lends poetry and subtlety to classroom steps, and a tendency to begin and end variations facing the audience full on in the fifth position” [Richard Buckle, "The Adventures of a Ballet Critic" (London, 1953), p.240.]

Fortunately, thanks to increasingly adventurous programming and the proliferation of commercial video recordings, our appreciation of early- and mid-19th century ballets has increased dramatically since Mr Buckle's day. Bournonville's choreography for Napoli - the most successful of his creations during his own lifetime and widely regarded nowadays as "Denmark's national ballet" (Zoe Anderson "The ballet lover's companion" [New Haven, 2015], p. 22) - has become a case in point, following a televised mid-1980s performance by the Royal Danish Ballet that subsequently came to enjoy wide circulation on video tape and DVD (my own copy is on Warner Music Vision/NVC Arts 2564-63477-2). While that performance remains a hugely enjoyable one - not least for the charismatic contributions of Linda Hindberg and, especially, Arne Villumsen in the leading roles - it is undeniably beginning to show its age in comparison with modern High Definition ballet recordings, especially when played back on large TV screens.

A new recording of Napoli, once again from the Royal Danish Ballet, ought therefore to be very welcome but this latest version is one offering a somewhat different take from that older performance. Significant changes are made to the story's setting, its musical score and its choreography.

The location in which this latest Copenhagen production is set is still Naples but this time we are transported in time to the 1950s as they might have been depicted in a film made by De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti or Fellini during the Italian post-war vogue for cinematic Neo-realism. The stage performance is even book-ended by atmospheric period titles projected onto the front curtain, no doubt raising a smile among knowing film buffs as the ballet's conclusion is indicated by the word "Fine".

The costumes, hairstyles, sets and props - including a vintage motor scooter on which the hero and heroine make their final appearance on stage - are all absolutely spot-on for the production's rather run-down and decrepit Neapolitan harbour-side setting. The effectively differentiated members of the corps de ballet are as resolutely non-PC as they would have been in real life: virtually everybody chain-smokes and lecherous men grope any attractive women within reach without the slightest embarrassment. A couple of blowsy tarts are kept very busy entertaining customers and paying off the corrupt local representative of the polizia municipale, while, just to cater for every conceivable taste, a singing drag queen keeps a keenly lascivious eye on the local fishermen. Given the secular atmosphere of post-war urban Italy, this updated production has also ditched some of Napoli's overtly religious references. Thus, the Bournonville character "Fra Ambrosio, a monk" has been replaced by an otherwise unexplained young female "pilgrim" in a rather tatty dressing gown, while the sacred amulet that plays an important part in the resolution of Act 2 has been discarded in favour of a simple token of secular romantic love.

The change in setting is, I think, generally all to the good. As depicted in that 1980s Hindberg/Villumsen performance, the cityscape looked so clean and slick and span - just so Scandinavian, in fact - that Naples might just as well have been Nørresundby. This version of the place, on the other hand, fits our mental image of what the place ought to look like - if only because we've been persuaded of that fact for the past 60 years ago by those influential Italian film makers.

Much of the overall popular appeal of Napoli rests on the colourful vivacity of its score and its generally lively and foot-tapping dances. In that particular respect, though, the second Act, set in an underwater grotto into which a drowned Teresina has descended, has always been something of a weak link. Given the undeniable fact that nobody can move in a sprightly fashion under the pressure of tons of sea water at the bottom of the Gulf of Naples, the traditional 19th century score was, at that point, restrained, slow moving and, quite frankly, somewhat dull. In fact, Copenhagen balletomanes used to refer to Act 2 as the Bronnum Act because it seems that, while it played, a large part of the audience would regularly exit the theatre to enjoy a snack in the city's nearby Bronnum Restaurant before returning to their seats for the more agreeably up-tempo wedding jollifications of Act 3.

New music for that problematic second Act has been specially written for this production by the contemporary Danish composer Louise Alenius. At just over 20 minutes in length, her score is relatively succinct: the old Act 2 as composed by Niels W. Gade (1817-1890) lasted 26 minutes in that 1980s production preserved on DVD and no less than 31 minutes when played on CD by the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra under Peter Ernst Lassen (Danacord DACOCD 632-633, but also part of a boxed set - see here). While retaining a suitably sombre approach to fit the ballet's storyline, the new score successfully creates a mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere that's very much its own while simultaneously matching the on-stage action most effectively. I'm something of a traditionalist when it comes to classical ballet and I'd expected not to enjoy this new version of the Bronnum Act, but - and not only, I think, because of its novelty value - it successfully held my attention throughout.

Given the adoption of Ms Alenius's score, new choreography was clearly going to be required for Act 2. It was devised by Sorella Englund and Nikolaj Hübbe and, while it certainly isn't Bournonville, the important thing is that it offers dancing that's a good physical match to the new musical style and idiom. I found it to be yet another enjoyable new element in this production and would suggest that, even if you're a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and really feel that this second Act might not be your cup of tea, you should give it a try. After all, it lasts only a little over 20 minutes and you'll still be able to enjoy plenty of the original Bournonville choreography as well - 35 minutes of Act 1 and 38 minutes of Act 3 in this production.

Fortunately, the charismatic stars of this performance of Napoli, Alexandra Lo Sardo and Alban Lendorf, are fully up to the physical and artistic challenges posed by the very varied choreographic styles of both the 19th and 21st centuries. They give consistently impressive performances all the way through to this exuberant ballet's show-stopping tarantella and concluding galop - the latter, incidentally, being H.C. Lumbye's sole contribution to the score - that quite rightly bring the house down. A good physical match, Ms Lo Sardo and Mr Lendorf make very convincing on-stage lovers. Third billing goes to Benjamin Buza who dances the role of Golfo, a sea spirit who wants to make the drowned Teresina into his latest aquatic mate. With the assistance of some effective make-up and stage lighting, Mr Buza effectively brings a degree of real menace and malevolence to his role. Lis Jeppesen, who acts the part of Teresina's mother, deserves a mention too: although not required to dance much, except briefly with a boy of about 12 years old during that famous tarantella, she is a consistently commanding presence on stage and adds much to the believability, such as it is, of the story.

As I have already suggested, there is plenty of activity for the other featured dancers and the corps de ballet all the way through Acts 1 and 3. Inspired by what he had seen during a real life visit to the teeming streets of Naples, Bournonville peopled his Copenhagen stage with street vendors, shop owners, fishermen, sailors, prostitutes, priests, policemen, passers by and children, all of them constantly in the move - gossiping, arguing, plotting, pick-pocketing, landing their catches, soliciting and lasciviously eyeing each other up. Napoli's stage is never static at those times and there's always plenty of generally convincing business going on to attract the eye: this is a ballet company with members who can not only dance but can also act.

The theatre orchestra, expertly conducted on this occasion by Graham Bond, can also certainly play, though as Napoli is the Royal Danish Ballet's signature work they will presumably have had plenty of opportunity over the years to get to know the score pretty much inside out. As my colleague John France suggested in his review referenced above, the old Helsted/Paulli/Lumbye score, very enjoyable and effective though it is, is no masterpiece. Nonetheless, it's played here for all that it's worth and the very different musical idiom espoused by Ms Alenius is also well conveyed.

The way in which this production has been recorded by directors Uffe Borgwardt and Peter Borgwardt may not please all ballet fans, among whom there is a continuing controversy, dating back at least to director Hugo Niebeling's controversial 1968 movie of American Ballet Theatre's Giselle, about how dance should be filmed. Some - we might perhaps term them "purists" - believe that dancers' legs and feet, at least, ought always to be visible so as to enable viewers to make an informed artistic assessment of the performances. Others, however, consider that the medium of film is nothing if not dynamic; thus the camera might, from time to time, legitimately cut away from the main dancers for just a second or two to focus instead - as might, in all honesty, an audience member's eyes - on some of the other stage business taking place on a busy set. The latter's certainly the approach that I generally prefer, finding that it often enhances a performance's atmosphere and authenticity. That's certainly so in this case, with frequent shots of individual characters in the crowd contributing - and reacting - to the on-stage action and thereby adding to its overall impact.

Moving on to the supporting material that's offered with the disc, the booklet notes could have been somewhat more detailed. In particular, I'd have liked them to have been a little more informative about some of this production's novelties, for I confess that, after repeated viewings, I still can't work out the significance of that "pilgrim" in the dressing gown – or even, indeed, whether she’s supposed to be a real person or some sort of ethereal apparition. The booklet does, however, give us at least the basic information that we need. Judicious internet searching will no doubt offer more to those requiring it.

This, then, as you will have gathered by now, is one of the most enjoyable ballet recordings that I've come across for some time. I can offer no higher praise than to point out that, having watched it once, I immediately ordered the Blu-ray version (Opus Arte OABD7185D). While, as you'd expect, that offers even better picture quality, I can't envisage any ballet fan - or anyone else who's appreciative of inventive theatrical performances - being anything but fully delighted with this new DVD release.

Rob Maynard

 

 




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